Used in the Christian Greek Scriptures to denote either a short period of time, a fixed, definite time, or a division of the day.
The ancient Israelites may have divided the daytime into four parts. (Neh. 9:3) The night was divided into three periods called “watches.” Mention is made of the “night watches” (Ps. 63:6), the “middle night watch” (Judg. 7:19) and the “morning watch.”—Ex. 14:24; 1 Sam. 11:11.
There is no indication in the Bible that the ancient Hebrews made a division of the day into twenty-four equal parts, or the day and the night each into twelve parts. No term for “hour” is found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Aramaic word sha·ʽahʹ, found at Daniel 3:6, 15; 4:19, 33; 5:5, and rendered “hour” in the Authorized Version, is from a root meaning, literally, “a look”, “a glance,” and may be properly translated “a moment.” For example, when Daniel stood before Nebuchadnezzar, who asked him to interpret his dream, Daniel was astonished “for a moment,” not for an hour.—Dan. 4:19.
The accounts at 2 Kings 20:9-11 and Isaiah 38:7, 8 tell of Jehovah’s act in miraculously making the shadow go backward ten steps “on the steps of the stairs of Ahaz.” Whether this was a form of sundial made for the purpose of telling time, as some believe, or whether it was simply the shadow of an object on the steps that came to be used to determine the time of day, is not stated.
EXPRESSIONS USED BY HEBREWS
The Hebrew Scriptures, instead of designating certain ‘hours,’ use the expressions “morning,” “noon,” “midday” and “evening” as time markers for events. (Gen. 24:11; 43:16; Deut. 28:29; 1 Ki. 18:26) Also, perhaps more precise designations were “as soon as the sun shines forth” (Judg. 9:33), “the breezy part of the day” (Gen. 3:8), “the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1; 1 Sam. 11:11), and “the time of the setting of the sun.” (Josh. 10:27; Lev. 22:7) The Passover sacrifice was to be slaughtered “between the two evenings,” which seems to mean a time after sunset and before deep twilight. (Ex. 12:6) This view is supported by some authorities, as well as by the Karaite Jews and Samaritans, although the Pharisees and Rabbinists considered it to be the time between the beginning of the sun’s descent and the real sunset.
God commanded that burnt offerings be made on the altar “in the morning” and “between the two evenings.” Along with each of these a grain offering was made. (Ex. 29:38-42) So it came about that expressions such as “the going up of the grain offering,” where the context indicates whether morning or evening (as at 1 Kings 18:29, 36), and “the time of the evening gift offering” (Dan. 9:21) referred to a fairly well-defined time.
The Israelites apparently established regular times for prayer, aside from prayers that might, of course, be made at any time. Daniel prayed “three times in a day” regularly. (Dan. 6:10) David spoke of praying at “evening and morning and noontime.” (Ps. 55:17) Peter was praying about the sixth hour (11 a.m.-noon) when God gave him a vision preparing him to go and preach to the Gentile Cornelius. (Acts 10:9-16) The ninth hour is called “the hour of prayer” at Acts 3:1; see also Acts 10:30.
THE TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR DAY
Egypt has been credited with the division of the day into twenty-four hours, twelve for daylight, twelve for night. These hours would not always be of the same length from day to day, because of the change of seasons, making the daylight hours longer and the night hours shorter in summertime (except at the equator). Our modern-day division of the day into twenty-four hours of sixty minutes each results from a combination of Egyptian reckoning and Babylonian mathematics, a sexagesimal system (founded on the number sixty). The practice of counting the day from midnight to midnight, thereby eliminating the seasonal variation in the length of the hours, was a later development, perhaps Roman.
IN THE FIRST CENTURY
In the first century C.E., the Jews used the count of twelve hours to the day, starting with sunrise. “There are twelve hours of daylight, are there not?” said Jesus. (John 11:9) As noted earlier, this made the hours vary in length from one day to the next, according to the seasons, the only times that they were of the same length as our hours being at the time of the equinoxes. Evidently this slight variation, which would not be so great in Palestine, did not create any major inconvenience. The start of the day would correspond to about 6 a.m., our time. In the illustration of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus made mention of the third hour, the sixth, ninth, eleventh, and, one hour later, “evening” (which would be the twelfth). These times would correspond to our 8-9 a.m., 11-12 and 2-3, 4-5 and 5-6 p.m., respectively. (Matt. 20:3, 5, 6, 8, 12) Midnight and “cock-crowing” are time designations also used in the Christian Greek Scripture. (Mark 13:35; Luke 11:5; Acts 20:7; 27:27; see COCKCROW.) Under Roman domination the Jews seem to have adopted the Roman division of the night into four watches instead of the former three.—Luke 12:38; Matt. 14:25; Mark 6:48.
A SEEMING DISCREPANCY
Some have pointed to what at first appears to be a discrepancy in the statements at Mark 15:25, which fixes the time of Jesus’ impalement at the third hour, and John 19:14, which gives the time as “about the sixth hour.” Now, John had access to Mark’s account, and he certainly could have repeated the time stated by Mark. Therefore John must have had a purpose in stating the hour differently from Mark.
In this regard, we may note that not all accounts in the Bible are given in exact chronological order, but relate highlights of what happened, with some accounts adding details different from those given by others. Each of the four Gospel writers recounts different features of the events of the day of Jesus’ death and the night preceding it. When stating the hour, Mark may therefore have spoken of the beginning of the impalement process, which included the scourging. This punishment was so cruel that some died under it; this may account for someone having to help bear the torture stake to Golgotha. All the momentous events of that morning, including the scourging, the mocking of Jesus by the soldiers and the slow and laborious trek to the place of staking, could have occupied quite some time, so that it was “about the sixth hour” when Jesus was actually nailed to the stake.
The word hoʹra is often used in the Christian Greek Scriptures to denote “immediately” or within a very short period. A woman who touched the fringe of Jesus’ outer garment became well “from that hour.” (Matt. 9:22) “Hour” could refer to a special or momentous point of time not exactly specified, or to the starting point of that time, as Jesus said: “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows” (Matt. 24:36), and, “The hour is coming when everyone that kills you will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God” (John 16:2), also, “The hour is coming when I will speak to you no more in comparisons.”—John 16:25.
Again, “hour” might designate a general “time of day,” as when the disciples said to Jesus about the multitude of people that had followed him to a lonely place: “The place is isolated and the hour is already far advanced; send the crowds away.”—Matt. 14:15; Mark 6:35.
FIGURATIVE OR SYMBOLIC USE
Symbolically or figuratively used, “hour” means a relatively short period of time. Jesus said to the crowd who came out against him: “This is your hour and the authority of darkness.” (Luke 22:53) The ten horns on the scarlet-colored wild beast are said to represent ten kings who are to receive authority as kings “one hour” with the wild beast. (Rev. 17:12) Of Babylon the Great, it is said: “In one hour your judgment has arrived!” (Rev. 18:10) In harmony with Jesus’ words concerning the wheat and the weeds, at Matthew 13:25, 38, Paul’s warnings of the coming apostasy at Acts 20:29 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7, and Peter’s statement at 2 Peter 2:1-3, John, the last surviving apostle, could well say: “Young children, it is the last hour, and, just as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now there have come to be many antichrists; from which fact we gain the knowledge that it is the last hour.” It was a very short time, indeed, the “last hour,” the final part of the apostolic period, after which the apostasy would spring forth in full bloom.—1 John 2:18.
As recorded at Revelation 8:1-4, the apostle John saw, during a silence in heaven for “about a half hour,” an angel with incense that he offered with the prayers of all the holy ones. This reminds one of the practice in the temple in Jerusalem “at the hour of offering incense.” (Luke 1:10) Dr. Edersheim, in The Temple, presents the traditional Jewish account of this “hour”: “Slowly the incensing priest and his assistants ascended the steps to the Holy Place . . . Next, one of the assistants reverently spread the coals on the golden altar; the other arranged the incense; and then the chief officiating priest was left alone within the Holy Place, to await the signal of the president before burning the incense. . . . As the president gave the word of command, which marked that ‘the time of incense had come,’ ‘the whole multitude of the people without’ withdrew from the inner court, and fell down before the Lord, spreading their hands in silent prayer. It is this most solemn period, when throughout the vast Temple buildings deep silence rested on the worshipping multitude, while within the sanctuary itself the priest laid the incense on the golden altar, and the cloud of ‘ordours’ rose up before the Lord.”—P. 138.